Out of ashes

Temporary cabin
This medical tent is typical of the cabins quickly thrown up last year after the Ham Lake fire. The vinyl was donated by a Duluth advertising company - the reverse side of used advertising banners.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Pastor Jedidiah Scharmer was in the Twin Cities, when the fire broke out last May. He was preparing for a Sunday evening service when the call came.

We have neighbors that lost everything they ever owned. They lost their sheds and their out-buildings and their home, and they don't even have a place to start from again.

The Ham Lake fire had quickly moved to the forest around Seagull lake, home to the camp Scharmer directs, the Wilderness Canoe base. And now fire had spread to one of the camp's two islands.

"It hit me in my stomach, and the tears came, and there wasn't much - I mean really a feeling of helplessness because it would be silly to come out on the island and try to fight something like that," Scharmer said.

A camp neighbor described a ball of fire that crossed the water and set the island ablaze. Firefighters were able to start some of the camp's fire protection sprinklers, but many were still out of service from the winter.

Forty of the camp's 60 structures were lost - everything from outhouses to staff cabins. Many were historic log buildings brought to the camp 50 years ago from what's become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

One of the building that burned was a large timber framed building called Morningside, which served as the director's residence and camp hospitality center. Scharmer said it went quickly.

Director of the Wilderness Canoe Base, Pastor Jedidiah Scharmer, stands before a patch of forest burned in the Ham Lake fire. The fire burned on the camp's islands in patches, leaving some places relatively untouched.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"The nails in the walls are laid out in a row: one, two, three, four, five; just perfectly aligned right on top of the foundation walls," Scharmer said. "It just burned that fast and that hot. Things didn't even fall over - they just ... they fell down."

Staff cabins, camper cabins, support buildings - all were lost. Scharmer said God spared the few buildings they would need to rebuild.

"He left us with a chapel for worship; a shop to rebuild out of with all the tools and the supplies; and a main lodge to feed volunteers and folks that come up to help us rebuild," Scharmer said.

Almost as soon as the fire was out an army of volunteers arrived. Hundreds of people offered to help. Temporary buildings were thrown up - covered in used vinyl advertising signs donated by a Duluth business. When campers arrived in mid-June, a vinyl tent city was waiting. Summer camp went on as scheduled.

A spring flower pokes up near a charred stump, left from last year's Ham Lake fire.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

A year later, another full camp season is planned, but there's still a lot of work to be done. The sounds of hammers and saws echo across the island. Permanent reconstruction is getting underway.

A North Minneapolis crew is finishing a staff cabin. The site is scattered with the burned log remains of what used to stand here.

Camp Manager Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux ticks off his summer to-do list.

"A lot of the foundation work that has to be done still," DeCoux said. "We have to re-do our fire suppression unit. We have to lay foundations for these buildings. We have to get all the materials to where they need to be. We have to start constructing the platforms for them and things. It's going to be a lot of work." DeCoux said the wilderness camp has changed. Before the fire it was thickly wooded. Buildings and paths used to be hidden in the forest.

New cabin
A new staff cabin rises over the remains of an older log building, burned in last year's Ham Lake fire. Crews are using innovative construction techniques to make buildings winter-ready and energy efficient.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"Now, what we're facing is, you can actually see how close the buildings are to each other, and you realize that these building never really were very far apart," DeCoux said. "So it loses kind of the illusion of just being really large with all the trees gone."

Most of the debris is gone, but charred logs will be visible for years. Pastor Scharmer said, all in all, the camp was lucky.

"We have the main lodge to eat," Scharmer said. "We have the chapel. We have the shop to work out of. We have neighbors that lost everything they ever owned. They lost their sheds and their out-buildings and their home, and they don't even have a place to start from again. It's just barren land. That's been pretty difficult."

Burned cabin
This log cabin is one of the few survivors. Burn marks indicate the fire spread in this area along the ground, burning up to the cabins through a wooden skirt around the base of buildings. In this case, the skirt apparently fell away before igniting the cabin.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

The Wilderness Canoe Base has raised almost $200,000 for their rebuilding efforts, which is being matched by $100,000 from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. And there was a generous insurance settlement.

Still, even that will only carry reconstruction for another year or two - still short of the camp's long range rebuilding plans.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.